Bingo’s Run by James A. Levine
Publisher: Spiegel & Grau
Published: January 7, 2014
Pages: 304 pages
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Book Summary: Meet Bingo, the greatest drug runner in the slums of Kibera, Nairobi, and maybe the world. A teenage grifter, often mistaken for a younger boy, he faithfully serves Wolf, the drug lord of Kibera. Bingo spends his days throwing rocks at Krazi Hari, the prophet of Kibera’s garbage mound, “lipping” safari tourists of their cash, and hanging out with his best friend, Slo-George, a taciturn fellow whose girth is a mystery to Bingo in a place where there is never enough food. Bingo earns his keep by running “white” to a host of clients, including Thomas Hunsa, a reclusive artist whose paintings, rooted in African tradition, move him. But when Bingo witnesses a drug-related murder and Wolf sends him to an orphanage for “protection,” Bingo’s life changes and he learns that life itself is the “run.”
A modern trickster tale that draws on African folklore, Bingo’s Run is a wildly original, often very funny, and always moving story of a boy alone in a corrupt and dangerous world who must depend on his wits and inner resources to survive.
My Thoughts: Kibera, Nairobi is the setting for James Levine’s second novel, Bingo’s Run. It’s a place very different from what many of us in “developed” countries know. Levine paints a vivid picture of Kibera’s appearance: alleys and slums populated with scores of people with no shelter. Those lucky enough to have shelter are living in squalor: dirt floors and houses with no roofs. The even fewer lucky enough to have a roof have one made of board or corrugated tin. Their walls are cardboard, cloth or wood. Pathways have formed between the huts due to all of the foot traffic. Many of these paths have become ditches carrying away the filth of humans and animals.
This is where Bingo and his fellow countrymen live, where so many of the people have nothing. Their time is spent picking through garbage mounds for scraps of food and anything else they may be able to use. The mound “grows forever” and the smell permeates everything. Atop a particularly large and ever-growing mound of garbage stands a man called Krazi Hari, a harmless maniac. Krazi Hari philosophizes and yells at all those who pass-by or stop to watch him or talk and yell back at him. He screams at Bingo and his best friend and protector, Slo-George. Bingo doesn’t mind, even enjoys his rants, as when Krazi Hari calls him ‘meejit’ as he often does, because Bingo knows Krazi Hari is crazy. But Bingo feels offended and angry when other people call him “meejit’. Bingo and Slo-George often begin their days throwing rocks at Krazi Hari.
Bingo Mwolo is an undersized teenage boy. He is fifteen years old but looks as if he is ten. Bingo tells us this is because he is a ‘growth retard’. According to Bingo, he is also smarter than almost everyone else he knows. He works for a local drug dealer, Wolf, as a runner delivering “white” to many customers throughout the day. Being a ‘growth retard’ (small for his age) is an advantage for Bingo as a runner. Bingo has learned to work the “system”, combining his best attribute for what he does, speed, with a code he’s developed that ensures his success. He’s created a list of 13 commandments which he lives by. Throughout the story, Bingo explains his commandments and how living according to these rules has saved his life more than once. Bingo has also hidden away the money he’s made in his job in a variety of different locations. This guarantees he’ll either have plenty of money or not lose too much at any one time should one of his stashes be discovered and pilfered. He’s also learned the importance of paying respect to those who can kill him whenever they want to, for no reason, and get away with it, a common occurrence in his line of work. He knows many runners who’ve met such grizzly fates.
There’s quite a bit of corruption and violence in Nairobi Bingo’s Kiberia. Bingo offers an entertaining and eye-opening explanation of the people and their ‘jobs’. The man at the top of the corrupt and sinister chain of men Bingo works for is named Gihilihili. In what would be ironic and criminal to westerners, in Kiberia it is as natural as air that Gihilihili is the head of police. Gihilihili wears several other hats, too, because he does whatever he wants to do. Under Gihilihili are Boss Jonni and then Wolf, extremely violent and corrupt men. Wolf, Bingo’s immediate superior, loves violence for its own sake. To navigate this maze of uncertainty, a life where Bingo lives under a Damocles’ sword in almost as literal a sense as possible, Bingo gets involved in the corruption, running drugs and stealing. Levine allows the reader to feel for Bingo, if not outright root for him, despite the fact he steals from shop keepers and tourists alike. To further the irony, Bingo steals not because he needs to, but either for sport or just to keep his “skills” in this area sharp. He shares honestly with readers what he’s done when he talks with relish about “lipping” tourists’ wallets. It’s not for gain, but for sport, because the idea is to lip the fattest wallet, the one with the most money.
It’s difficult to find fault with Bingo when we know what his life has been like. He was, for example, witness to his father’s, and later, his mother’s, murders. It’s also tough for the reader to hold Bingo’s choices and actions against him when he tells us about some of the other people, such as Gihilihili and Wolf. Comparing Bingo’s existence (and his countrymen) with the tourists, for example. The tourists are pale, fat and gullible. They are necessary to the economy of corruption in Nairobi. But they can leave at any time while Bingo and his countrymen cannot. We’re getting an opportunity to see what life is like here through the eyes of the natives. Levine, as a result, would like us to reassess how we view our way of life and feel about ourselves just because we give a few dollars to charity or spend money in Bingo’s country. This money is NOT helping the locals or their economy because the corruption is prevalent, designed to benefit only a very few people at the top of the chain who don the appearance of respectability. Orphans are housed by white priests who are also cogs in the corruption. The police chief wears western suits and jewelry and pays extra attention to the tourists who can line his pockets: a thousand dollars for a visa here, a few hundred dollars for a permit there.
Levine astutely reminds us, as smart and charming as Bingo is, he’s still only fifteen years old and virtually alone in this world. We’re reminded of this when Bingo gets caught in the crossfire between the two drug lords, Boss Jonni and Wolf, as they vie for control of the drug trade. After the frightening incident between Boss Jonni and Wolf, Bingo reminds us he trusts no one but himself. This turns out to be a good ‘rule’ to live by for Bingo because there’s a lot of deceit and subterfuge surrounding the Boss Jonni/Wolf incident and several people want Bingo’s trust. In fact, Wolf, who prevailed against Boss Jonni, sends Bingo to St. Michael’s orphanage, ostensibly for Bingo’s safety.
While at the orphanage Bingo meets Mrs. Steele, an American. Her “real” purpose for being in Nairobi is somewhat mysterious. She says she wants to adopt Bingo and bring him to America. Bingo is enamored of her and sees her as a mother figure. Despite being alone for so long and trusting only himself, Bingo cannot help but be excited about the prospect of living in America. Bingo then discovers Mrs. Steele is an art dealer with an interest in the artist, Thomsa Hunsa. She wants to secure a contract with him. Bingo doesn’t like this idea. He’s the only person Thomsa Hunsa trusts after some American art dealers burned him badly years ago. Bingo thinks he should be Thomsa Hunsa’s dealer.
Bingo is confused and unsure. Is Charity, the hotel maid where Bingo is staying with Mrs. Steele, telling him the truth about Mrs. Steele and her “selfish plans”? What about the information the maid is relating to Mrs. Steele about Bingo? Because there is so much corruption in Kiberia, Bingo cannot help but decide he won’t trust Mrs. Steele. Rather, he wants to use Mrs. Steele and her greed (as he sees it) for Thomas Hunsa’s art to make his one big score that will free him from his life in Nairobi. He plots and takes on the different roles he needs to, willing to use friends and other locals to advance his schemes. He plays dumb. He plays obedient. He lies. He steals. He plans to cheat and hurt whoever he needs to in order to get what he wants. However, it’s important to remember that Bingo is at heart still a boy, despite his experiences that most people wouldn’t have over several lifetimes that have jaded him. The reader hopes Bingo will come to realize what’s really important, and not go so far that he throws away his chance at happiness.
We feel and root for Bingo because his life is shaped by such malevolent forces. He is the “good guy” in a world where morals are non-existent and survival is all that matters. Those lucky enough to have come to power have done so through terrorizing their compatriots. So if Bingo’s plans include taking them down, it gives us yet another reason to hope for his success. The means may be immoral in and of themselves, but they are justified by the ends. But Bingo’s trust issues may stand in his way.
Levine has created in Bingo a boy wise beyond his years, and interesting and human enough to give us no choice but to care about him. When we see him with Mrs. Steele, we see a boy who misses his mother and on a very basic level wants a mother’s love. Mrs. Steele (appears to be) offering this to him. We don’t overlook the terrible things he does, even though he couches them within a set of self-styled commandments he always adheres to. Whether forced or by choice, we are made to understand why he does these things. It is because of where he lives and why he has come to be a drug runner. Bingo was also left an orphan at a young age and did what he had to do and could do to ‘save’ himself. Though Bingo can’t do anything about being a native of Kiberia or being an orphan, he could opt not to be a drug runner. But if he did, he would be starving. He would not have any clothes or a place to live. His life would have no purpose except to try and survive each day, one at a time. He would not be able to help his friend Slo George. As it is, because he is a runner, he has money and other substantial advantages so many of his other native countrymen do not.
It’s not possible to go into much more detail without giving away the book. Suffice to say that it’s a good read with very interesting characters. There are indeed many instances of clear-cut “bad guys” we want to see get it in the end, and if that comes via Bingo’s machinations, all the better. I’ve never believed, except in extreme circumstances, that good and evil specifically are so clearly delineated. I found it refreshing and realistic that the rest of the book follows along those lines. Many of the ‘moral’ aspects of the book are muddled: the “good guys” aren’t riding in on white stallions with white hats, saving the day in the end. Some of the “good guys” are seemingly plain nuts, railing from atop mounds of reeking garbage. Some are drug addicts who create art while high as a kite. Others see themselves as “growth retards” and allow themselves to see only the worst in people, almost to the point where it’s too late to make things right. If you want to read a book that takes you places you never even knew were out there and ways of life that are fascinating because they are so desperate and different, you should read Bingo’s Run.
Thank you to Giselle-Marie Roig at Random House for sending me a copy of Bingo’s Run to read and review.